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Monday, November 27, 2000

Kleberg jail faces crowding

County to consider new private facility

By Jeremy Schwartz Caller-Times

Before the current Kleberg County Jail was completed in 1997, the county was forced to send dozens of prisoners north to Nueces County because its antiquated 30-bed jail was filled beyond capacity.

That arrangement cost the county up to $500,000 a year, said Kleberg County Sheriff Tony Gonzalez.

But today, just three years after the new 124-bed facility was finished, it is almost full of inmates, and Gonzalez said Kleberg County could face overcrowding soon if more space for county prisoners isn't found.

To alleviate the problem, Gonzalez has proposed that the county consider building a private detention facility for federal prisoners that would also hold excess county prisoners and bring in jobs and tax revenue. While the county would build the jail, a private firm would run it.

The commissioners court has voted to send advertising proposals to 13 firms that build and run private jails. But the court has not committed to building the jail.

Profit-making detention facilities are a burgeoning business in South Texas, with a 225-bed facility going up near Falfurrias and negotiations to build another near Encino in the works.

Builders of the detention facilities need counties to sponsor them, so county governments are often able to leverage some benefits out of the deal. Brooks County is having LCS Corrections Services Inc. pay for more than half of its new jail in exchange for letting the company build the Falfurrias detention facility.

Gonzalez said federal authorities are looking to house up to 3,000 more detainees in South Texas.

He said federal officials told him Kleberg County was an attractive site because of its proximity to the federal courthouse in Corpus Christi.

Kleberg County would ask for about 50 beds if a 500- to 1,000-bed detention facility is built. Officials think the facility would also generate 200 to 300 new jobs and, over the years, bring in millions of dollars in tax revenue for county, city and school governments.

"I believe it's a win-win situation for the county," Gonzalez said. "It would be a shot in the arm."

Gonzalez said the need for more space so quickly may stem from faulty projections for the current jail. Planners, he said, may not have taken into account the number of prisoners in Nueces County jail, leading to underestimates.

Kleberg County Commissioner Romeo Lomas said he thinks the jail crowding is a result of taking in inmates arrested at the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Sarita, which is in neighboring Kenedy County. Lomas said those inmates represent an unfair burden to Kleberg County. Without those inmates, the Kleberg County Jail wouldn't be facing a crowding problem, Lomas said.

Lomas said he has several concerns about the proposed detention facility - including the county's liability for accidents and reaction from residents - and called for public hearings to get community input.

"I'm not totally against it," he said. "I just want to make sure we make the right decision."

Brooks County Judge Homer Morasaid he thinks his county made the right decision in going with the private detention facility. "I think it's not a bad thing," he said. "We get a jail and jobs out of it, and the county isn't liable for the cost if it doesn't do well."